7 Ways Americans Are Getting Out of Debt

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By Gerri Detweiler

You may be determined to get out of credit card debt, but how do you actually do it? If you're like most people, cutting out that cup of joe you grab at your local coffee shop in the morning isn't going to cut it. You're going to have to use a combination of several strategies to help you reach your goal.

Motivation doesn't seem to be the issue. According to a recent Credit.com survey, Americans and Credit Card Debt, 72 percent of people with credit card debt say it is "extremely important" or "somewhat important" to have a plan to pay off their credit card debt in 2014.

And in fact, 85 percent of those surveyed who say they have credit card debt also report they have been successful paying down this kind of debt in the past.

What techniques have people used to pay down debt in the past? We asked survey respondents to select all the strategies they employed to help pay down their balances and here's what they told us they did:
  • Took in a roommate -- 3 percent
  • Cut back on buying coffee from a cafe -- 13 percent
  • Got a second job -- 14 percent
  • Consolidated credit card debt -- 20 percent
  • Cut regular expenses (cable, phone, insurance) -- 31 percent
  • Stopped eating out as much -- 37 percent
The No. 1 strategy listed by most respondents who said they paid down credit card debt in the past? "Started budgeting" was chosen by 60 percent of respondents.

As dreaded as the task of creating a budget may be, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%consumers seem to be aware that if they want to pay off debt, they had better start paying attention to where their money is going.

There can be a big payoff to creating a budget: Just tracking spending has been shown to have positive benefits, extending even beyond the money saved. Some research suggests that people who write down everything they spend may see improvement in other areas of their lives, such as eating less junk food and becoming more productive.

Unfortunately, though, most consumers don't budget. Only 32 percent of households prepare a detailed household budget, according to a Gallup poll conducted in April 2013.

Consolidation, Counseling and Bankruptcy

As for other solutions those in debt are considering, the survey also asked respondents which of the following they have seriously considered, and received the following responses (from those with credit card debt):
  • Credit card debt consolidation (15 percent)
  • Credit counseling (8 percent)
  • Bankruptcy (8 percent)
While debt consolidation was the most popular option, getting a consolidation loan can be tricky, especially for those whose credit scores have been hurt by the debt they carry. In those cases, credit counseling may be a more realistic option. It usually has the effect of a consolidation loan -- lower interest rates and a lower monthly payment -- but it doesn't require good credit to qualify.

Whatever method consumers use to get out of debt, it's going to take some willpower, creativity and hard work. And time. While 41 percent of those surveyed said it was extremely likely they would pay off all their credit card debt in 2014, it often takes people much longer than that, especially if their balances are large.

But other consumers have succeeded in paying off massive amounts of debt, demonstrating that with the right strategies and in the right situation, anything is possible.

As you pay down your debt, it's a good idea to track your progress on how it's affecting your credit. For one, it can be encouraging to see the positive effect that paying down your debts can have on your credit scores; but it's also good to just ensure that your payments are being reported accurately.

You can keep an eye on your progress by checking your credit reports -- at least once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies -- which you can do for free through AnnualCreditReport.com -- and monitoring your credit scores, which you can do using a free tool like Credit.com's Credit Report Card.

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7 Ways Americans Are Getting Out of Debt

Nearly one in four people say they don't have money to contribute to retirement after all the bills are paid. It might feel that way sometimes, but if we can find the $50 to go out to dinner every Tuesday night, we can find $200 a month to put in a retirement account. Make this happen, even if you have to do it one dollar at a time over the course of the month.

And if you think putting away $50 a week won't make a difference, consider this: Contribute just $200 a month for thirty years, and if your money grows on average 8% a year, your total contributions of $72,000 will grow to almost $300,000 if put away for 30 years. When you think about it that way, skipping that regular Tuesday dinner doesn't seem so bad, does it?

This is one of the most seductive retirement lies. For a good long while, it is true that retirement is a ways off. (Even if you're 55, it's still at least ten years away.) But the longer you put off saving for retirement, the less interest you'll earn and the more difficult it will be for you to save.

An example: Alex and Jordan both put just over $90,000 in their retirement accounts over the years, but Alex began saving ($2,000 per year) at age 22, while Jordan began saving (about $3,500 per year) 20 years later at age 42. Even though they both put in the same total amount, Alex will have over twice as much money at retirement as Jordan will when they reach age sixty-seven (assumes a 6% annual rate of return). That's because her money had more time to grow, so it was able to make more off of itself than Jordan's.*

Seriously, you have two people who put the same dollar amount into their retirement funds. The one who started twenty years later contributed the same amount, but ended up with less than half as much.

As someone who cares about making my money work for me, this speaks volumes. It turns out that one of the smartest things you can do is simply to get time on your side. This is how you shortcut the hard work-by taking advantage of the power of compounding interest and the fact that you will only have an increasing number of financial obligations pulling at your purse strings as the years go by. So, this is not something you can keep putting off. This is something to tackle today. The time is now.

* Note: This is illustrative and is not reflective of guaranteed profits over time. Actual results may fluctuate based on market conditions.

I bet all the married people reading this are having a good laugh right now. Marriage does not automatically make your financial life easier. The effect of marriage on your finances depends on a host of factors: Do you both work? Do you both make enough to support yourselves? If one or both of you got laid off, could you still afford your rent or mortgage? Are you honest with each other about your spending? Do you agree on your financial goals? Will you have children? If so, do you make enough that one of you can stay home with them? Bottom line: This is an outrageous excuse, and now I am drinking wine.
I hear you. But saving for retirement versus enjoying life now is not an either/or proposition. You can do both. Also, let me put it this way: Yes, you deserve to enjoy

your money now, but you also deserve not to count pennies when you're old.

This is a case of counting chickens before they hatch. You never know what could happen to the inheritance (it could be devoured by medical bills, it could dwindle away in a financial crisis, or you may need it to pay off debts or taxes of the estate). Sure, it would be nice to inherit a windfall and be able to put it toward your retirement, but counting on doing so is not a plan-it's a gamble at best. It's far safer to plan to fund your own retirement and then enjoy your inheritance as a bonus if you do indeed receive one.
Yes, the market is unreliable from year to year, and yes, the value of your investments will dip in a down market. But downswings don't last forever, and historically, over long periods of time, the market has shown solid returns. While past performance doesn't reveal future returns, the S&P 500, for example, has averaged 9.28% annual returns over the last 25 years.

Alternatively, let's say you leave your money under your mattress or even in a savings account bearing 1% interest: You're going to lose the purchasing power of those dollars due to inflation (which is estimated at 3%). Yes, with the market, you're opening yourself up to some risk -- but with risk comes reward.

No one can predict the market. No one. So while it's true that you cannot time your investments perfectly so that they only ever go up, history has shown that if you invest regularly over decades, your investments should experience more ups than downs. So invest for the long haul, and don't fret over minor dips now. If you do, you'll be missing out on an opportunity to amass money later.
Sure, selling your home will free up lots of cash ... but then where will you live? And what if the market is down when you want to sell that home? Remember the housing crisis a few years ago? The one where tens of thousands of near retirees were left without nest eggs after the values of their homes plummeted? This is not your smartest game plan.
Yes, college is a big expense, and you should definitely save for it-that is, once your own retirement needs are taken care of. If you're a parent, it's a natural instinct to put your children's futures before your own. But think about it this way: If you don't save the full amount for your children's college education, you can always fall back on financial aid, grants, scholarships and student loans to help pay your children's way. When it comes to your retirement, however, there are no loans. Let me repeat: There are no loans. All you'll have to live on is what you've saved. For that reason, saving for retirement should be your top financial priority-always. I get that you don't want to saddle your kids or future kids with loans- what parent would?

But remember that if you pay for your children's college and then cannot afford your retirement, you will end up burdening your children all the same. They will feel obligated to help you out-at a time when their own families need them financially.

You may love your work, and it may be the kind of work you can even imagine yourself doing well into your seventies or eighties. But while that's easy to say now, what if you can't find work at that point in your life, or what if you have health problems or family obligations that prevent you from working? While there is nothing wrong with hoping for a best-case scenario, it isn't wise to plan around one. Sock away some money now so you're ready for whatever may come your way. The last thing I ever want you to deal with is a health issue and money concerns at the same time.

Reprinted from the book "Financially Fearless: The LearnVest Program for Taking Control of Your Money" by Alexa von Tobel, CFP®. Copyright 2013 by Alexa von Tobel. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.

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